No matter the season, fasting is a spiritual discipline that many small groups have either chosen to ignore or do so without the proper context.
I have always marveled at the concept of fasting in 21st century consumerist America. As a little girl, my church made a big deal about fasting, but I saw many participants of these fasts misinterpret the true meaning of what it means to go hungry before God.
This often played itself out in “humble bragging.” For example, “I can’t go out to eat, I’m fasting,” or “Don’t tempt me with that banana. I’m fasting,” or better yet, “I can’t hang out with you—I’m going to a special celebration service for our church-wide fast. You see, we’re all fasting.” I never really respond when I hear these answers. While I nod my head in agreement, internal conviction shakes its weary head.
Jesus clearly shares His heart about a biblical fast in Matthew 6:16-17.
16 “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.
From this passage, we gain three truths about fasting.
1. Fasting is for you, not for God.
God doesn’t need your fast. You are not giving up a cheeseburger for His name. The act of fasting is one of running to God to meet all of your needs—not the other way around.
Much like tithing, God doesn’t need our resources—He wants them, because where our resources are, that’s where our heart is (Matt. 6:21). And that’s all God is after—our hearts.
Don’t think you are doing God a favor by not eating. What you accomplish while fasting is the establishment of an ever-increasing reminder of your desperate longing for Father God. You are reminded of your need for Him at every stomach grumble.
2. Fasting must be done in silence and secrecy.
Although fasting can be done corporately, such as with your church or small group, those outside of the fast do not need to know you are practicing the spiritual discipline.
Verse 16 is the key rebuke of Jesus’ fasting command: the hypocrites fast “so they will be noticed by men when they are fasting.” Although Jesus is addressing the Pharisees, known for altering their appearance as they entered the temple to look like they were “suffering for God,” the context can be extended to modern times: if you are hungry, save your fasting complaints and anecdotes for another day.
Aside from being unbiblical, sharing about your fast takes away from the intimacy you have with the One for whom you are fasting. Jesus acknowledges the beauty in privacy in verse 18: “So that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Note the words, “your Father who is in secret.” Your relationship with God is yours and His alone, not your spouse’s, not your parents’, not your church’s, not your friends’.
3. Fasting is trading.
Fasting is one of the most misinterpreted spiritual disciplines in the church. Many believers view fasting as a giving up of food or television, yet they stop there. They do not know why they are releasing their right to pleasure and sustenance. At its core, fasting is trading a dependence upon something physical for God alone.
Dallas Willard remarks, “Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food . . . . In fasting, we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God.”
The act of fasting is one of the most intimate acts you can have with Father God. Your physical hunger is to be replaced with spiritual hunger. Fasting is a time of deep desperation—and all the more, it is to be silent desperation.
You and your group members can hold each other accountable to your fast, and you can also encourage one another along the way. Nevertheless, I believe Jesus calls us to take very seriously privacy within our relationship with God. There are some secrets that are only meant for God and myself, whispers of the heart that I share with only Him.
If I’m hungry, it’s our little secret.
Caroline Case is a proud Nashville transplant from Naples, Florida, who serves as the Production Editor for Lifeway’s SmallGroup.com and Discipleship in Context teams. Caroline has a Bachelor of Communication from Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, FL. She is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in English and Creative Writing at Belmont University in Nashville, where she will go on to pursue her doctorate and teach.